CLEVELAND -- David West’s first idea was to win a championship in the traditional way. It was five years ago that his Indiana Pacers had built a conventional NBA front line around West at power forward and Roy Hibbert, their 7-foot-2 All-Star center. The big men were meant to post up in the halfcourt, dominate the glass and strangle the pace of play. Little did West know that the longstanding practices and methods of the NBA postseason were already beginning to collapse.
“I think Shaq had a lot to do with that,” said West of Shaquille O’Neal’s influence on how NBA champions used to be built. “When I first came in the league, it was at the end of the Lakers’ run with him. The teams were still having to have bigs to deal with him. Even as he got to the end of his career those bigs were still around. And then Dirk began to emerge.”
The emergence of Dirk Nowitzki -- the 7-footer with 3-point range who led Dallas to the 2010-11 championship -- had been among the many signals of the changes that were arriving. Then came 6-foot-8 LeBron James, who would brazenly stand up to the bigger Pacers and beat them with an unprecedented style that they couldn’t recognize.
The most versatile star in the history of the league taunted and felled the Pacers as if he were a young mutant in one of the X-Men movies. James was like a shape-shifter who changed positions and personas faster than the Pacers could react to him. He could do anything and he did everything. For three straight postseasons -- from 2012 through 2014, including successive Eastern conference finals -- he absorbed the conventional challenges by the Pacers on his way to crushing them.
It was during those deep but futile playoff runs that West realized who he was and who he wanted to be. In 2015 he opted out of the final year of his Indiana contract -- costing him $10 million -- in hope of winning the championship as a minimum-salaried big man with the San Antonio Spurs, a flexible organization known for constantly reinventing itself. West’s decision to surrender the money was envied by many of his peers.
“A lot of guys privately were like, man, I wish I could do it,” West was saying before practice Tuesday on the floor of Quicken Loans Arena, where Game 3 of the NBA Finals will be played Wednesday. “Because it is hard to be in this league and lose. Sometimes from the outside looking in, folks say the money can sort of cure it. But it doesn’t. I’ll talk to guys who have made one or two playoff appearances in their career -- they regret that, and wish they could have made a decision or two that would have changed that in retrospect. I didn’t want to be one of them guys.”
And so, when the Spurs were knocked out in the 2016 Western Conference semifinals by Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder, West found himself looking for the next big idea. He wasn’t the only one.
In these last five revolutionary years, the NBA has changed around a new generation of leadership embodied by James, Stephen Curry and Durant. It is no coincidence that all three are competing in these NBA Finals.
In this entrepreneurial league, the biggest stars are forever innovating. And everyone else is having to adapt.
Korver's game in tune with future
“I feel like I’ve been shooting baskets for a long time,” said Kyle Korver with a laugh after practice on Tuesday. Cleveland’s bigger stars -- James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love -- were answering questions at podiums to large audiences of reporters from around the world. Korver, the 36-year-old shooting guard of the Cavaliers, was sitting courtside with a single writer.
“When I came into the NBA, coaches wanted you to shoot a midrange shot or two before you shot your 3 -- you know, to get an ‘easy one’ first,” Korver recalled. “That’s what everyone would say. And now open 3s are the easy ones, it seems like.”
Korver was the No. 51 pick in 2003 -- the Draft of LeBron (who went No. 1 to Cleveland) and West (No. 18 to the New Orleans Hornets) -- when the NBA was still emphasizing defense and muscle at the expense of skills and speed.
To Korver’s everlasting fortune, he began his second season with the Philadelphia 76ers under coach Jim O’Brien, who was ahead of his time. While others in the NBA were chastising their players for shooting 3s, O’Brien was encouraging Korver to extend the floor. By Korver’s second season he was already among the NBA’s 3-point shooting leaders. It was viewed as a controversial development.
There is no secret sauce, man. You’ve got to find mechanics that you can make the same every time, and you’ve got to do it over and over again, and you can’t just shoot for rhythm."
“There was talk that they were going to maybe experiment with taking away the 3-pointer in the D-League -- that was when the D-League was young, too,” said Korver. “I remember doing a TV show about whether the 3-point shot was ruining the game. A bunch of people at that time were saying that it was.”
But the trend of his early career would not be reversed. Instead it would continue to grow exponentially as Korver led the NBA in 3-point accuracy four times (he converted 53.6 percent in 2009-10 with the Utah Jazz) and reached the 2015 All-Star Game with Atlanta. The long-shot player -- barely drafted, with little-to-no expectations -- had been redeemed by the NBA’s longest shot.
“I think all the years of shooting -- of doing the same thing every day -- has influenced who I am right now as a person as well,” Korver said. “That is what shooting is. There is no secret sauce, man. You’ve got to find mechanics that you can make the same every time, and you’ve got to do it over and over again, and you can’t just shoot for rhythm. You’ve got to understand what you are doing. You have to focus on those details every day.”
Barrage of 3-pointers have slow beginning
Even so, it was hard to not be in awe of the bigger picture that had developed around him. In Korver’s breakout 2004-05 season, he had tied with the Phoenix Suns’ Quentin Richardson to lead the NBA with 226 3-pointers. Never could Korver have imagined 12 years ago that Curry would sink 402 last season. This season, Curry settled for a more reasonable 324 3-pointers while sharing the ball with Durant (who made 117) and Klay Thompson (268).
“Crazy, crazy numbers,” said Korver. “It completely changes the way you have to guard a team when you have someone who can handle the ball like Steph can, and create off the dribble. And then to have to guard him out that far away from the basket. And then you add other weapons around him.”
Korver was not fooling himself into believing that the deep-shooting Warriors were an exception to the rule. “The game is just going to keep going in that direction,” he said.
The irony, for someone who had helped launch this new wave, was that Korver was now struggling to keep up. While Durant and Curry were shooting Golden State out to an impressive 2-0 Finals lead, Korver was going 1 for 6 from his favored distance. As much as he was disappointed and frustrated by recent performances, he had not lost faith in his well-earned ability to make the next shot.
“You’re always trying to get better,” he said. “You’re always tinkering. You’re always learning new things.”
All the same, what he was seeing from the 3-point line in this series was new. Even for him.
Jefferson learns new scoring path
The speed and athleticism of the Warriors had been a steady topic of concern for the Cavaliers as they tried to dream up responses of their own in recent days.
But Richard Jefferson, their 36-year-old backup small forward, insisted that it was nothing he hadn’t experienced before. He had, after all, begun his career in 2001-02 with the New Jersey Nets and point guard Jason Kidd, who pushed the ball through traffic like a skier slaloming between the gates.
“I don’t think anybody was faster than that team,” said Jefferson with a smile. “In my humble opinion.”
The difference between now and then was that these Warriors had been assaulting Cleveland with 3-pointers in transition. At the dawning of the new millennium, Jefferson and his Nets had been focused on the surer 2 points around the basket.
“We ran for layups,” Jefferson said of his old Nets teams. “And we didn’t really have guys that could shoot the ball. This is different, because now you have guys running for 3s, so the lanes are a lot more open. When you had J-Kidd going downhill and you had me and Kenyon (Martin) or Vince (Carter) trying to get dunks, that was really, really tough and it put a lot of pressure on the defense.”
In those days, Jefferson’s Nets never averaged more than 97.6 ppg in any of their seven regular season games together. These Warriors generated 115.9 ppg during the season -- and were now averaging 122.5 ppg in the two games of the NBA Finals. The old Nets used to convert as many as 7.4 3-pointers per game. Tthe new-generation Warriors were doubling that number so far against the Cavaliers.
Golden State’s speed of attack and wealth of talent from the arc has been a revelation for LeBron’s Cavaliers, who themselves generated 13 3-pointers per game during the regular season -- 1 more than the Warriors. “He works on it a lot every day,” Korver said of James’ attention to 3-point shooting. “Just in our conversations, he knows that it’s taking his game to the next level. I think as his career progresses and he gets a little older, it’s all there for him to continue to be a great shooter.”
When you’re two home games away from being swept, however, the only future that matters is the 48 minutes to come. For Jefferson, the problem confronting him in Game 3 was to provide defense off the bench against Durant, who was several inches taller and eight years younger.
“I’m not as quick, I’m not as agile,” said Jefferson in comparison to his younger self. “I can’t make up for mistakes. I can’t let a guy go by me and then go get a block. I don’t have that extra burst to go get that steal when you wouldn’t see it, or if I don’t box out to still be able to go get that rebound. So from that sense you have to be smarter. You have to make sure that you are on the body, that it’s not a jumping contest.
“I believe that I’m a smarter defender. I wouldn’t say that I’m a better defender than when I was young.”
I get in trouble for it now because I try and run for a layup ... I’ve been ingrained for 10 years to try and get a layup first, and if you don’t have it then work your way out."
The Cavaliers remained insistent on trying to score in transition -- not in hope of beating the Warriors at their own game, but simply because a high number of points are needed to beat Golden State. But the need to rack up points was creating something of an identity crisis for Jefferson.
“I get in trouble for it now because I try and run for a layup -- and they are telling me to run wide to the 3-point line,” Jefferson. “I’ve been ingrained for 10 years to try and get a layup first, and if you don’t have it then work your way out. For a guy like myself -- who I feel like does a good balance shooting 3s and drives -- if I catch it at the 3-point line and I have a man closing out to me, it opens up the lanes for drives.”
A new cycle of perimeter play was emerging in these Finals, Jefferson believed. He was sure that the cycle will continue to develop, but eventually -- long after he has retired -- the style of play will revert back again.
“The game has evolved,” Jefferson acknowledged. “But the minute that you got a bunch of big men that can post up again, (the emphasis on) the 3-point shot will change a little bit.”
Iguodala sees 'gifts' in game changing
The evolution from defense to offense, from inside scoring to outside shooting, from big to small -- Golden State’s Andre Iguodala has experienced all of it firsthand.
In 2004, Iguodala was picked No. 9 by the 76ers to eventually replace 6-foot Allen Iverson as the franchise star in Philadelphia. But then the currents of the NBA game channeled him in another direction entirely.
“I remember playing against Boston and I guarded (Rajon) Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul (Pierce) -- because I was always guarding him -- and I guarded KG for a few possessions,” said Iguodala of Kevin Garnett, the Celtics’ 6-foot-10 power forward. “And then I guarded (Kendrick) Perkins. And that’s when I thought this game is kind of crazy.”
Amid that craziness he has found his niche. At 6-foot-6, Iguodala has emerged over these last three Finals as the defender assigned by the Warriors to stop James. Years before he arrived in the NBA, Iguodala never could have imagined a star so versatile as James -- or that Iguodala himself would be challenged to guard him on the biggest stage.
“It’s more an evolution of where the game is right now, where everything is more on the perimeter,” said Iguodala, 33. “You’ve got the floor being stretched out a little bit more, and you don’t have dominant centers like Shaq. I shouldn’t say the game got smaller, because you’ve got 7-footers on the wing now. The 3-ball is more important and it’s having a bigger effect on the game.”
In The 2015 Finals, Iguodala was elevated to the starting lineup to downsize the Warriors’ lineup and defense against LeBron. Injuries to Irving and Love essentially left James isolated in that series. At the end of that series, the Warriors won the title and Iguodala was named Finals MVP.
In The 2016 Finals, Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5. LeBron took advantage of that absence, sparking Cleveland’s comeback from a 3-1 deficit.
This year, both teams are at full strength and a new truth altogether was emerging.
“There’s gifts and curses -- but I think more gifts,” said Iguodala, as he tried to sum up how the NBA had been altered by the three stars of these Finals. “For LeBron, he didn’t change who he naturally was. Everybody wanted him to score the ball like MJ [Michael Jordan]. But he was naturally a gifted passer. He is doing an awesome job in embracing the scoring side, which isn’t natural for him. But he has maximized that. It is amazing to see a guy who can pass the ball the way he does and still be able to score.
“Then you saw the ‘gold rush’ for Steph when everyone was gravitating to how he was playing, because that wasn’t something that you see -- a guy who could dominate the game the way he has over the last couple of years. And then you get the ‘normal’ guy more into the game: They can relate because he’s a guy that looks like them from a physique standpoint.
“From KD, you see kind of the supernatural. Which is crazy. He is hard to explain. But now that is what every 6-10 guy wants to be like. They’re trying to be like that, but that is gifts.”
Like NBA itself, West soaks in new way to play
The newest set of gifts were those being explored by Durant -- the near-7-foot athlete with the shooting touch of Nowitzki and the ball-handling of a guard -- with the result that another change in perspective was taking place. Instead of continuing to hear criticism for having joined the Warriors, Durant was now receiving for praise for transforming them.
The old complaint (that he was seeking the easy way to the championship) was being superseded by a new one (that the emergence of this new style of play driven by Durant appeared impossible to stop). At least, that was how West was seeing it.
“It is about the journey,” West was saying on the eve of Game 3. “And making sure you’re taking advantage of every single step of every day. I came in trying to learn, and I’m going to go out learning.”
West’s search for the next ahead-of-the-curve idea had led him to sign last summer with the Warriors. He was now experiencing his first NBA Finals, and it was living up to all of his dreams and expectations. He was two wins away from his first championship.
“You just want to be a part of it,” West said. “I was just telling these guys over here that I am 36. So I’ve been playing organized basketball for 30-plus years of my life. You want to feel you at least gave yourself a chance to tell a story of not just being in the NBA regular season. You want to feel what it is like to get to this point.”
You want to finish what you started, someone said to him.
“Yes,” West said.
And so it was for Durant, Curry and Iguodala, for James and Korver and Jefferson. They were all racing to the finish of this latest, newest trend.
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